Girls Made of Snow and Glass: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“If you’re delicate, it means no one has tried to break you.”

Mina is sixteen years old when she comes to Whitespring. Her mother is dead and she sees few options for a future. When Mina learns that her father, a dangerous magician, has replaced her own weak heart with one made of glass she realizes that even the prospect of love is impossible. What Mina does have is beauty. And a secret. She hopes to be able to use both to stay clear of her father and win the king. For if the king and his kingdom fall for her beauty, surely they will be able to love her even if her glass heart makes her incapable of returning the feeling.

Lynet has always looked like her mother–a resemblance that is even more striking now that her sixteenth birthday is approaching–but her personality could not be more different. Lynet does not want to be beautiful or delicate like her dead mother. She wants to be strong and fearless like her stepmother Mina. When Lynet learns the truth, that a magician made her out of snow in her mother’s image, it feels like her destiny will never be hers to control.

When the king names Lynet queen of the southern territories instead of Mina, a rivalry forms between them. As previously unbreakable bonds are tested and friends threaten to become enemies both Mina and Lynet will have to decide if they are capable of transcending their beginnings to forge a new future in Girls Made of Snow and Glass (2017) by Melissa Bashardoust.

In her debut novel Bashardoust offers a feminist retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White with a focus, of course, on the relationship between daughter and step-daughter. The novel alternates between close third person chapters detailing Lynet’s present struggles to claim her own fate as her birthday approaches with Mina’s past and her early days in Whitespring.

Bashardoust’s writing is methodical with a slow start to draw readers into the story and introduce both Lynet and Mina. Instead of relying on familiar tropes and stereotypes, both Lynet and Mina are well-developed characters with complicated motivations and conflicting feelings. Both women are ambitious and see the crown as a way to take control of their own lives. But what does that ambition mean compared to years spent as a family? After all, there can only be one queen.

This fledgling rivalry forms the majority of the plot while explorations of magic, their own strange beginnings, and what it means to love help to flesh out the story. Lynet’s infatuation and eventual relationship with the new palace surgeon–a woman named Nadia–adds another dimension to the story.

While the characters and plot are handled well, the overall world building is lackluster. While readers see much of the palace, the rest of Whitespring is unexplored within the text. The magic system is poorly explained with only vague explanations for how Mina and Lynet can live. The curse that shrouds Whitespring in winter year round is equally vague.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is a thoughtful and thoroughly feminist fairy tale. Recommended for fans of retellings and readers who prefer character-driven novels.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Frostblood by Elly Blake, Roar by Cora Carmack, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Ash by Malinda Lo, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, Maleficent

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Saint Death: A Review

“Each of us dies the death he is looking for.”

“Don’t worry where you’re going, you’ll die where you have to.”

Saint Death by Marcus SedgwickArturo is scraping by living in Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. He can see El Norte from his small shack but America feels distant compared to his reality spent hauling things at the auto shop and trying to avoid the notice of gang members and the cartel who have carved Juarez into their own sections of territory.

Arturo’s childhood friend Faustino reenters his life preparing to use stolen money to send his girlfriend and their son illegally across the border. With his gang boss on the verge of discovering the theft, Faustino is desperate for help to replace the thousand dollars he has taken. Arturo reluctantly agrees to try to win the money playing Calavera but as with most card games, things don’t go according to plan.

Looming over Arturo’s story, and Juarez itself, is Santa Muerte–Saint Death. The folk saint watches impassively as people in the border town struggle in the face of a vicious drug trade, dangerous trafficking, corruption, and income inequality. It’s possible that Santa Muerte might help Arturo if he prays hard enough and proves himself. But it’s also possible she’ll watch as Arturo heads toward his tragic ending. The outcome doesn’t really matter, everyone comes to her in the end in Saint Death (2017) by Marcus Sedgwick.

To call Saint Death ambitious would be a gross understatement. This slim novel complicates a deceptively simple story about one young man and uses it as a lens to examine the world on a much larger scale.

Arturo’s story, as related by an omniscient third person narrator, alternates with commentary from nameless third parties on conditions affecting Mexico and Juarez specifically including The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), climate change, the city’s founding, and even the worship of Saint Death herself.

The formatting and language Saint Death underscore that this is a book about Mexican characters who live their lives in Spanish. There are no italics for Spanish words and dialogue is formatted according to Spanish language conventions with double punctuation for question marks and exclamation points (one at either end of the sentence) and no quotation marks for dialogue which is instead indicated with dashes.

Saint Death is simultaneously an absorbing, heart-wrenching read and a scathing indictment of the conditions that have allowed the drug trade and human trafficking to flourish in Mexico. Eerily timely and prescient this ambitious story is both a masterful piece of literature and a cautionary tale. Add this to your must-read list now. Highly recommended.

If you want to know more about some of what’s mentioned in the book and a bit about Sedgwick’s writing process, be sure to check out his blog posts about the book as well.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough,The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle,The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the March 2017 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Stealing Snow: A Review

Stealing Snow by Danielle PaigeSnow has spent most of her like behind the walls of the Whittaker Institute. The high security asylum is meant to help rehabilitate troubled patients, like Snow, let go of their delusions.

But Snow doesn’t think she’s crazy. Not really.

Being near Bale makes like at the Institute bearable. At least until Bale claims he can see what Snow really is when they kiss. And breaks her hand in two places.

When mysterious hands grab Bale and pull him through a mirror, Snow knows that she has to follow. A voice in her dreams tells Snow exactly what to do in order to escape. Following the voices directions, Snow makes it outside and finds herself in the wintry world of Algid.

Snow soon learns that Algid is her true home and her father is determined to do everything he can to hold onto the throne–and keep Snow far away from it. As magic, mayhem, and trickery collide, Snow will have to decide who she can trust if she wants to rescue Bale and make it out of Algid alive in Stealing Snow (2016) by Danielle Paige.

Stealing Snow is the start of Paige’s new series which is a dark retelling of The Snow Queen.

Paige goes for a darker tone right from the start with Snow residing in an asylum that seems to come straight from the pages of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While this setting offers a gripping backdrop for the opening of the story, it also often defies logic as readers realize Snow has been at the Institute since she was a child (and is, in fact, still only seventeen suggesting there should have been at least some type of schoolwork or high school equivalency studies).

The story picks up considerably when Snow actually arrives in Algid and more of the novel’s characters are introduced. Snow finds a veritable band of misfits as she makes her way through Algid trying to find her father, the Snow King, and rescue her love Bale.

Along the way Snow encounters numerous love interests, her own snow magic, and vast conspiracies that stretch between Algid and our world. While this series opener raises many questions about Snow, her family, and Algid, readers will have to wait for future installments for most of the answers.

Stealing Snow is a fast-paced adventure with a sharp-tongued narrator who isn’t afraid to be ruthless. Paige takes some of the familiar elements of The Snow Queen and shakes them up with an inventive reimagining of the this fairy tale and the frighteningly evocative world of Algid. Recommended for readers looking for a new fairytale retelling that is extra dark.

Possible Pairings: Splintered by A. G. Howard, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Reign of Shadows by Sophie Jordan, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, Ruined by Amy Tintera

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Graces: A Review

The Graces by Laure EveEveryone says that the Graces are witches.

Thalia might dress the part with her spangly skirts and scarves, and Fenrin might bewitch all the girls in town with his good looks and charm. But Summer, the youngest Grace, is the only one willing to admit that she is exactly what everyone in town whispers.

Everyone wants to get close to the Graces. Everyone knows how much it must hurt to lose their interest. Because everyone, inevitably, loses the Graces’ interest.

River is new in town and desperate to attach herself to the Graces. She’s in love with Fenrin, like everyone, even though it’s a cliche. She hopes that seeing into their strange world might understand some of what’s been happening to her. But first River has to become one of the Graces. And she’s will to do whatever it takes to get their attention in The Graces (2016) by Laure Eve.

The Graces is Eve’s first novel and the start of a series.

Eve builds tension early with a narrator who remains nameless for the first part of the novel. Readers know that River arrived in town under a cloud, forced to move for reasons she will not divulge. River sees herself as different and other–just like the Graces themselves–and her narration is suitably calculating and cold.

While The Graces is atmospheric, the beginning remains slow with River carefully circling the Grace siblings as she tries to break into their orbit. The push and pull between what is true and what is not works well with the interplay between magic and reality throughout the novel.

Recommended for readers looking for a trippy book with twists reminiscent of Liar and readers who enjoy an unsympathetic main character–whether to root for them or to watch them fail.

Possible Pairings: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Wink, Poppy, Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2016*

Three Dark Crowns: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare BlakeOn the island of Fennbirn, a reigning queen gives birth to triplets each generation. Once the triplets are born, the queen’s rule is over and she is exiled with her consort to his homeland. The triplets–all equal heirs to the crown–are separated and raised according to their magic until the year they turn sixteen when the real battle for the throne begins. By the end of the year the crown will go to the last queen left alive.

Katharine has been raised by the poisoners, arguably the most powerful group on the island and the ruling class for generations. But Katharine is weak. Even the simplest poisons wreak havoc on her body– a fact that she and her guardian are determined to keep hidden at any cost.

Mirabella is a powerful elemental with the ability to summon storms and conjure fire. Her power is unprecedented drawing even the supposedly neutral temple priestess to champion her bid for the crown.

Arsinoe has found familial love and friendship in her home among the naturalists. But she has not found her magic. She cannot control animals of any size or make the smallest plants bloom–something any naturalist should be able to accomplish from a young age.

As Katharine, Mirabella, and Arsinoe contemplate their fate they all have their eye on the crown. Katharine knows the crown is her only chance at revenge. Mirabella feels the crown is her right as the strongest heir but she isn’t sure if she wants it. Arsinoe knows she is unlikely to survive the year but she is determined to stay alive for as long as she can. Three sisters, three dark magics, one crown in Three Dark Crowns (2016) by Kendare Blake.

Three Dark Crowns is the start of a trilogy. The book follows Katharine, Mirabella, and Arsinoe in close third person narration. Snippets of the story also follow those closest to the sisters as all three move inexorably toward the battle for the crown.

Blake expertly brings the island of Fennbirn and its strange customs and fierce traditions to life. Evocative prose and vivid landscapes make the island a secondary character in the novel as different parts of Fennbirn are revealed in each chapter.

Magic on this island has a cost, as does the right to rule, and throughout the novel all three sisters pay dearly. Katharine, Mirabella, and Arsinoe are distinct characters with ambitions that have demanded they harden their hearts and make great sacrifices.

Three Dark Crowns is dark fantasy at its finest and most tense. Page-turning action contrasts with moments that will leave readers breathless. Intricate plotting, surprising moments of intersection between the characters, and shocking twists make this a must-read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

The Swan Riders: A Review

*The Swan Riders is the sequel/companion to The Scorpion Rules. As such this review contains major spoilers for book one.*

The Swan Riders by Erin BowGreta Gustafson Stuart, former princess of the Pan Polar Confederation, is a newly minted Artificial Intelligence. In agreeing to become an AI, Greta has saved herself and fellow hostage Elián Palnik while avoiding the wrath of Talis–the all-powerful AI who rules the world with the judicious use of satellite weaponry, carefully chosen hostages, and his Swan Riders who act as part army and part cult for Talis and the other AIs.

Greta is the first new AI in more than a century. Haunted by memories of her time as a hostage growing up at Precepture Four–including torture, friendship, and Xie, the future queen and the lover Greta had to leave behind–Greta struggles to cling to what is left of her humanity while learning her capabilities as an AI. With the future of the world hanging in the balance, Greta will have to use everything she knows about being AI and human to bring her two dramatically different worlds together in The Swan Riders (2016) by Erin Bow.

This sequel picks up shortly after the conclusion of The Scorpion Rules. Quick recaps and Greta’s own memories bring readers up to speed in this fast-paced sci-fi novel although knowledge of the first book is ideal.

Bow dramatically expands the world here by introducing more of the landscape as Talis, Greta, and two Swan Riders travel across Saskatchewan toward the AI home base near Montana. Interludes from Talis’ point of view–both in his present form as an all-powerful AI and in flashbacks to his time as the idealistic Michael Talis who wanted to save the world–add another dimension to this disturbingly likable character who is both hero and villain.The Swan Riders themselves also play a significant role in this story that is as much about what it means to be human as it is about what it means to rule, and maybe save, the world.

Weighty subject matter and heavy questions about what is best versus what is right are tempered with humor and Greta’s wry first-person narration. Complex characters further enhance the introspective nature of this story as Greta tries to figure out who she is when so much of her past is now irrelevant to her future. Like its predecessor The Swan Riders again has a thoughtfully diverse cast of characters with familiar faces and newer additions including Francis Xavier, a stoic dark-skinned Swan Rider born with one hand.

The Swan Riders is a fascinating follow-up and stunning story from an author at the top of her game. A must-read for fans of The Scorpion Rules.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson,  Fire by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Winterspell by Claire LeGrand, Soundless by Richelle Mead, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Clariel by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, And I Darken by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in School Library Journal’s August 2016 Issue as a Starred Review from which it can be seen on various sites online*

Vassa in the Night: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vassa in the Night by Sarah PorterSixteen-year-old Vassa Lisa Lowenstein isn’t sure where she fits in her family or if it even qualifies as a family. Her mother is dead. Vassa’s father stayed only long enough to settle Vassa with his new wife. So now she has a stepmother and two stepsisters. Chelsea is nice enough but Stephanie might actually hate Vassa–which is fine since it’s mostly mutual. It’s an odd living arrangement to Vassa but no more peculiar than a lot of things in her working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.

The nights have been acting especially strange as they become longer and longer. When her stepsister (Stephanie, naturally) sends Vassa out in the middle of the night for light bulbs the only store that’s still open is the local BY’s. Everyone knows about BY’s, and its owner Babs Yagg, but people do tend to remember a store that dances around on chicken legs and has a habit of decapitating shoplifters.

Vassa is sure getting out of the store quickly will be easy. Even her enchanted wooden doll, Erg, is willing to behave and keep her sticky fingers to herself this once. When things don’t go as planned in BY’s it will take all of Vassa’s wits and Erg’s cunning to escape the store alive and maybe even break whatever curse has been placed on Brooklyn’s nights in Vassa in the Night (2016) by Sarah Porter.

This standalone urban fantasy is inspired by the Russian folktake “Vassilisa the Beautiful.” Although Vassa is described as incredibly pale, the rest of the book is populated with characters who are realistically diverse. Complicated dynamics within Vassa’s blended family add another dimension to the story. Evocative settings and imagery help bring this bizarre corner of Brooklyn to life including strong allusions to the Studio Ghibli film “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Vassa is a cynical, no-nonsense character who is quick to make jokes and take risks with the delightfully sharp-tongued Erg at her side. Vassa’s frank narration is sure to remind fans of Veronica Mars as will her resigned acceptance of her role as hero in this story.

Elements of traditional horror blend well with high-concept fantasy in this surprising and engaging tale. A deliberate lack of romantic tension makes Vassa in the Night a refreshing read focused on themes of self-reliance, friendship, and family.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Reader by Traci Chee, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the August 2016 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review from which it can be seen on various sites online*